‘Snow Queen’ music made delightful ballet even better – Register Guard

Denis de Coteau, the late conductor of the San Francisco Ballet, once remarked that “music in ballet is either overlooked or underlooked by various sectors of the arts fraternity… . The critic comments on almost every detail of the ballet and at the end you read, ‘The performance was conducted by… .’ That’s it.”

I intend no criticism of Gwen Curran’s April 10 review of the Eugene Ballet’s recent premiere of “The Snow Queen,” but I wish to further highlight the 100-plus minutes of music composed by Kenji Bunch and performed by Orchestra Next.

Conductor Brian McWhorter demonstrated an enviable ability to not only lead the musical proceedings, but also to skillfully respond to the musicians in the pit, the dancers on the stage, and to Bunch’s colorful score. McWhorter allowed the music to breathe — consequently, both performances exhibited a sense of freshness and spontaneity.

Enlisting an orchestra of single winds, harp, piano, strings and a vibrant palette of percussion, Bunch, in long-standing opera and film tradition, assigned unique themes, motives and timbres to each character and setting. The tinkling, icy sounds and sinister themes introduced in the Snow Queen’s Palace, for example, gave us hints throughout the ballet whenever the Snow Queen was (again) up to no good!

Careful listeners might have also noticed a few compositional delicacies. During the opening scene, for instance, we heard an energetic fugue — a technique in which a theme is restated in staggered entrances, each new one piling up against the others. (This fugue was also visually depicted by the guard-like Ice Captives in Tony Pimble’s remarkable choreography.)

Another hidden gem could be found in the music accompanying the mirror scene. It was notable not only for its disquieting music-box character, but also because several of the musical motives were themselves palindromes in which the second half of the themes were mirror images of the first. (Isn’t it wonderful when a work of art can be immediately engaging and yet reveal more secrets with each viewing or hearing?)

Other remarkable musical moments included Kay and Gerda’s achingly beautiful theme; dreamlike dances by the flowers in Conjure Woman’s garden and by the Robber Girl; the Arrival of the Crows (several patrons around me delighted in the crows’ calls emanating from the string section); the muscular and virtuosic Gypsy Camp dance, and the emotionally cathartic final scene during which Gerda, Kay and the Rose Briar are at last reunited.

I regret there were simply too many orchestra members to properly commend here, but the performance level was simply extraordinary. The score called for heartfelt solos, delicate chamber music, and full-throated orchestral tuttis — and all were delivered in a way that delighted composer and audience alike.

I attended both performances but deliberately sat in different areas of Silva Hall. I had the more satisfying musical experience when I sat near the front of the hall, just a few rows from the orchestra pit. When I sat farther back for the second performance, there were times when I had to strain a bit to hear the quieter passages. In retrospect, I wish the orchestra had been lightly amplified so that everyone could have been fully enveloped by Bunch’s wonderful music regardless of their location in the hall.

To be sure, this was a ballet. The essential visual elements of dance, costumes, scenery, and lighting must certainly be placed at the forefront. Just the same, let us not forget to also attend to the musical fabric that binds it all together.

If you would like to experience the music of “The Snow Queen” once again, a recording by Orchestra Next is now available on the Innova label.

Robert Ponto is assistant dean at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.